March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.
Claressa Shields is the only American boxer, male or female, to claim back-to-back Olympic gold medals. After taking Olympic golds in Women’s Middleweight Boxing in both 2012 and 2016 as well as world championship golds in 2014 and 2016, the 22-year-old from Flint, Mich., native nicknamed “T-Rex” finished with an amateur record of 78-1.
Since entering the professional ranks, Shields is 2-0, already having captured the NABF Female Middleweight title after a technical knockout of Szilvia Szabados on March 10 at MGM Grand Detroit. The bout was the first women’s headline bout ever on Showtime.
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Q: How early did you know athletics would be a big part of your life?
A: I believe maybe around third or fourth grade. In third grade, I ran track and played basketball. I even did karate for a while. So in doing those sports, I knew I was a good runner and that I was real athletic then.
Q: Did you participate in any other sports growing up? How did you end up boxing, and then staying with boxing?
A: I did volleyball in seventh grade, too. And I kept running track, and did cross-country. For boxing, though, I knew that I would be a boxer from the first day I walked into the gym. I was 11 years old. I just saw everybody working so hard, and starting off doing it myself, I knew I could box.
I was inspired to box by my dad (Bo Shields), who told me all about Muhammad Ali and his daughter, Laila. He told me she was a bad girl in the ring. I thought from that, he was telling me to box also. I think I misunderstood. At first he was hesitant to let me box, but he eventually signed me up anyway.
Q: Why is participation in sports so important for girls today?
A: I think, not just for girls, but for anybody, working out helps to relieve stress. And it keeps you occupied. You don’t have time to do bad things if you are focused on winning, on something positive, on having to train hard and work hard. If you get into working out from a young age, on working hard to win, it’s a good mindset to have moving forward.
And then, also with girls, we’re not always supposed to be athletic or to be athletes. Sports really help to relieve stress, and you learn a lot about yourself. And you don’t just learn how many miles you can run, but you learn what works for you to relieve stress.
Q: Who were your biggest athletic role models growing up and what was it about them that inspired you?
A: My biggest athletic role models were Serena Williams, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Floyd Mayweather. Especially when I started boxing, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis before any of them. I loved hearing about them and loved seeing the way they boxed. I still watch film of those two to this day.
Q: Take us through that moment when you won gold in London (a 19-12 win over Russia’s Nadezda Torlopova), and then being able to do it again in Rio de Janeiro (a 3-0 win over Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands)? How special – or different – was each one and how special was it for you to go back and defend your title?
A: They were definitely two very different moments for me. In London in 2012, it was the first Olympics that women’s boxers had been in. I was the last American to start fighting, and in my last two fights it was just me of the Americans fighting for the medal.
I’m a big internet fan, so I saw people were saying that Claressa comes in with a lot of hype. They were saying I was only 17, and that I wouldn’t even win a bronze medal. Hearing that kind of made me think, ‘They don’t really know me.’ I don’t care about the pressure, what ring we’re fighting in. Every ring is the same, so it’s basically like fighting back home. Nothing’s different. It doesn’t matter if there’s a crowd around, I knew that nobody could beat me. I knew I was going to win, even though everybody else was doubting. When I won, I never really celebrated. I got in the gym three months later to continue my amateur career and look to 2016.
Getting ready for 2016 was different because no other boxer had not gone pro after winning a medal. You have Michael Hunter Jr., Rau’shee Warren, they didn’t medal so they tried to get back. Not (1976 Olympic gold medalist) Sugar Ray Leonard. Nobody ever went back to win. Everybody said it would be harder to win your second gold than your first, and I thought, ‘How could that be?’ I trained so hard the first time, but now I’m stronger and faster. How could it be harder? I still trained like I was 16, but I’m more mature.
The only thing on my mind was to do something that had never been done before. I was the person doing something impossible, and I knew I could do it. After I did it, the reporter who spoke to me made it real for me. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ In my mind, this is crazy. It was an out of body experience. One thing I did in 2016 that I forgot to do in 2012 was grab the flag. I made sure I did that. My stepmom had the flag and I got it. I didn’t want to leave one little detail out.
What’s challenging now is getting boxing on equal footing, with equal pay and status for women. To me, that’s more important. Even if it was for no money, no other boxer in America has two gold medals. In 2016, the rule changed where men could be in the Olympics as professionals. It’s three more years until the next Olympics, and now it’s more of an equality thing. If you’re going to let men do it, let women do it. I already know who would be in the tournament, I know who the top girls are. None of them can beat me.
Q: Where do you keep your gold medals?
A: In my purse. I have them right now. Why have them in a safe? Nobody’s going to beat me up for my gold medal. What are you going to do?
Q: How important is it to you to build on what you’ve already done as an amateur with your professional career?
A: I take full pride in being the chosen one. In being a woman to carry women’s boxing. It’s about showing that skill, showing that power, showing that knockout potential. I feel like boxing’s sometimes been about that one boxer that’s beating everyone. Right now, we have boxers competing with each other. It’s not just one woman beating everyone. Now that it’s very competitive, you get the right people in the ring and you can start building that hype like you have with men’s boxing. You can have those questions like, ‘What if Claressa Shields fought her?’ and you can make the ‘what ifs’ actual fights.
Getting in the ring, everyone wants an entertaining bout, but they consider women to be sluggers. I have better skills than 95 percent of the men boxing, amateur or professional. It’s about jabbing, using different combinations. A little Joe Louis, a little Sugar Ray Robinson, and add in a dash of Mike Tyson.
Q: What should girls do who don’t have access to sports they want to play?
A: You have to make it be known that you want to play, to be heard. At the gym I began going to (Flint’s Berston Field House), I was the only girl down there. There’s just one boxing gym, not separate girls and guys boxing gyms.
Q: In your opinion, how important are sports to empowering and giving confidence to young girls?
A: It’s really just important for girls to be active. We go through so many changes as we get older. You go from having no breasts to growing breasts. My legs got bigger, my back got bigger. It’s about learning how your body works for you. Working out is very healthy for the mind and for your mental strength. Sometimes I’m on the treadmill running 12 miles an hour to get a sweat in, and your body says you can only do that for 30 seconds. Then, you’ve done it three times, and you say ‘How about a minute?’ It’s about testing your body, seeing what you can or can’t do. It shows you that the mind controls the body. As long as your mind wants something to get done, it will get done.
I can block out pain. I can numb up my entire body. We suffer injuries during a fight. I’ve had a fight where my shoulder went out, had a swollen thumb where I couldn’t throw a jab. Those kinds of issues help build the mind’s power. Anybody who doesn’t want to be overweight, this is what you’re going to do. The body works for the mind. You keep on going, getting your body in the best shape you want it to be in, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process.
Q: What overall advice would you give to young female athletes? What is important for girls to know about playing sports?
A: It’s important to know that you have to work hard in order to win. It’s important for women in general, when you’re playing a sport, for people to take you seriously. You’re playing to prove that you’re a good person at this sport. I’m boxing not just for this fight but to show that I’m an actual boxer and that you should respect me as a boxer.
Never let somebody tell you that you’re not as good as this male because you’re a woman. You can have a better technique than him, you can work harder, and you should be taken seriously. Don’t worry about your size – push your body to the extremes. You’re never the worst player if you’re working hard, if you’re pushing yourself to the limit.